Photo Courtesy of Indiewire
Story by John Cantor/Contributing Writer
A cast involving animated dogs and a lack of emotional depth in characters—that were originally very dark and brooding characters—leads to a film void of the painfully biting story written by Jack London. This reimagining of the tale features a digitized lead character in the form of Buck, with his co-star being none other than modern legend Harrison Ford.
Now, one could go on to complain about how far the film strays from the savage nature of the book. However, this film was released with a PG rating, so it’s easy enough to tell that keeping to the much more violent storyline of London’s novel was never a goal. Instead, the film extracts more of the book’s childlike wonder; a spirit that drove many to venture into the West Canadian wilderness during the Yukon gold rush of the late 1890s.
The film doesn’t stray all that far from the core storyline. It manages to establish the general character arc of Buck, a pampered Southland dog from a sunny part of California, and his transition into becoming the strong leader of a wolf pack in the Yukon wilderness. The biggest difference is in the moral complications of the story. In the book, almost every character seems to possess some sort of savagery, brought about by a will to survive the unforgiving forces of nature. The movie breeds the same sense of amazement and desire for adventure throughout. Buck, although animated, has plenty of engaging energy and emotion. This is demonstrated when he hits comedic beats very well, such as wreaking havoc at a picnic his first owner is having, to genuine sadness as he is suddenly separated from caring owners time and time again. The scenes, while not particularly inventive, are executed very well and present awe-inspiring shots of the wilderness. There are several classic self-discovery and survival scenarios. In one such scene, Buck dives beneath an ice covered path into the frigid waters of a lake to save a French-Canadian mail courier that fell below. The thrill of Buck leading the sled team through a series of tricky icy tunnels to avoid an avalanche after proving to be a great leader, is another great example of the excitement this film brings.
There are a few nods towards the brutal treatment of these brave dogs in order to gain obedience, such as Buck’s first experience being clubbed, which brings out the famous line about “the law of club and fang.” Most of the humans’ extremely vile actions and characteristics are removed. There is still a sense of how hard the work is, but characters like the French-Canadian couple delivering the mail are very loving towards their dogs and treat them with a great deal of respect. It’s a far cry from the often brutal owners that allowed their dogs to kill the weak in order to move on. These are instances where that moral complexity is missing. The characters are either kind and honest, or they are not. One of the only examples of the latter is the character Hal, played by Dan Stevens. Immediately as he enters the cameras lens, you know he is a villain, albeit in a cartoonish manner. From a very expensive looking plaid suit topped with a matching hat, to a ridiculous looking waxed mustache and pair of sunglasses, everything about this character makes him very easy to dislike.
The film’s plot change completely removes the Yeehat Indians from the story. This storyline, where Buck and company are seen as righteous and virtuous characters, alters some brutal and vividly described deaths by making it seem like a dog just ran away. London’s original book describes Buck in more graphic fashion: “The blood lust, the joy to kill—all this was Buck’s…to kill with his own teeth and wash his muzzle to the eyes in warm blood,” are replaced with Buck catching a rabbit and then releasing it alive, as he felt bad for the poor creature. These are two entirely different Bucks! One would steal other dog’s food portions in order to survive, and the one in the movie offers his own food to another dog who has been stolen from. He couldn’t be more honorable and well-liked.
While these choices can be one dimensional, it portrays positive values and a classic story to a wider and younger audience. The movie is still very entertaining, despite the lack of emotional depth, but there is one performance and character interpretation that goes deeper than the original story: John Thornton, played by Harrison Ford. He fleshes out the key character’s backstory in greater detail. Rather than just being a kind young adventurer seeking gold, he is portrayed as an older man, wizened and hardened by the lessons of life and the Yukon. He has a tragic past and his only son died very young, which led to him growing apart from his wife and traveling north to be alone. He deals with his pain with a bad drinking habit.
These characteristics present the most realistic and interesting human character in the film. Ford’s signature wit mixes well with his grumpy but kind character. His genuine sorrow over the loss of his son that he tries to drown out with whiskey and isolation make for an endearing and emotionally complex presence in the film. It also establishes a more vital and honest bond between him and Buck. They are both full of self-discovery, and their pairing seems meant to be. They embark alone where no one has ever ventured before, a dream Thornton once shared with his young son. Understated scenes such as Ford lying head to head with Buck beside a campfire, and blowing on a harmonica before allowing Buck to slobber all over it, making his own song, show the subtleties of their loving bond.
One final element that enhanced the overall film, can be attributed to Ford as well. Not only did he play his character John Thornton truthfully, but he provided narration in scenes that Buck couldn’t, because well, Buck is a dog. The final scene in particular, as Buck is running through his newfound home and leading his new family of wolves, Harrison Ford’s voice work is full of a rich and rugged quality that fits in very well with the expansive shots of the natural world. It provides the perfect sense of pioneer adventure this movie gives to its audience.
“Call of the Wild” is an exploration of the beauty and might of nature’s pull on us all, and a call we should answer more often.
To contact Lifestyles Editor Brandon Black, email email@example.com.
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